Late last year, Ridley Scott unveiled his ambitious, controversial epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, with Christian Bale as Moses. It was the story of a man who had it all, lost it all, found something better and dragged a whole nation to a strange land promised to them by God.
It was not nominated for an Academy Award. Not even for Best Performance by Locusts.
But Exodus: Gods and Kings actually shares a bit in common with most of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The idea of a spiritual journey.
Sure, only one of the year’s nominees includes a literal trip to the Middle East, and what Chris Kyle found in American Sniper was far from a land of milk and honey. Some of our Best Picture protagonists don’t travel much at all, and one—Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—ends the movie barely able to move. None of our protagonists are explicitly searching for the Promised Land, and few seek God’s guidance.
But in each movie, people leave the comfort of home (or a manifestation thereof) for the promise of something greater. They’re looking for many of the same things that Moses and his people were: Freedom. Truth. Happiness. Redemption. Each feels the tug of something bigger than themselves, pulling them in new, unexpected and sometimes frightening directions.
Each of our Oscar protagonists is on a pilgrimage—a spiritual journey of discovery and meaning. Let me show you what I mean.
The walk taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in Selma is not a long one compared to that of the Exodus—just 54 miles to Montgomery. But these Civil Rights protesters, like the Hebrews, believed it was a walk toward freedom—specifically the freedom to vote. King, like Scott’s Moses, left the comfort of home and risked everything because he felt that’s what God wanted him to do. The journey is not without risk: The established powers in Selma don’t want to let their people go, and they’ll beat them to keep them exactly where they are. But those forces are eventually swept away, not by the Red Sea, but by waves of racial progress.
M. Gustave, legendary concierge for The Grand Budapest Hotel, is also on a quest for freedom, and quite literally. Thrown in the clink for a murder he didn’t commit, Gustave busts out and, with the help of his loyal bellboy, Zero, goes on a zany but ultimately successful journey to clear his name and redeem his reputation. You could say he even finds the Promised Land—ownership of a priceless painting and the deed to the hotel itself. But He and Zero find an even greater treasure: A loyal, enduring friendship. Their adventure turned out to be a spiritual journey of discovery as much as a physical one. But as it was for the Hebrews, Gustave’s own postscript fell short of happily ever after.
Mason makes quite the journey in Boyhood, too, but his pilgrimage is not as much through space as time. He, too, seeks freedom—the sort of freedom that all children seek and most eventually claim: The freedom to make his own decisions and to live his own life. Growing up isn’t just a physical and mental trek to maturity. It’s a inherently spiritual one, too—a journey of self-discovery. We, like Mason, begin to wonder who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. Like Scott’s Moses, none of us really have a choice about leaving the relatively comfortable confines of our immature “home.” We’re kicked out of Egypt. We know the walk toward adulthood will be difficult and sometimes dangerous. No getting around that. But we also have a choice on which directions will go. And while Mason, like Moses, takes some bad turns here and there, there’s still hope that he’ll find a new and hopeful future.
Sometimes, a spiritual trek isn’t a journey through space or time, but through our own brains and souls. In two movies, the Promised Land isn’t a place as much as a goal—a tireless quest for excellence and understanding. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing isn’t just out to understand Nazi codes, but explore the boundaries of synthetic intelligence—a journey that eventually leads him to create the world’s first computers. The Theory of Everything shows how Stephen Hawking, even has his physical body was slowly imploding, sent his mind on the deepest, most exciting of journeys—through black holes and across the universe and brushing against the boundaries of space and time. These brilliant men are a little like Moses: They have access to insights that the rest of us simply can’t understand—revelations that can feel even preposterous to doubters. And to follow such men (particularly in The Imitation Game) becomes a matter of faith. Turing’s team follows him because they believe in his insights and ideals, even when proof is frustratingly elusive. And eventually that faith pays off.
But sometimes, faith—blind faith—can lead us astray.
Whiplash gives us Andrew, another protagonist diving deep inside himself to find truth and understanding—in his case, to grasp the ethereal, near spiritual elements of music and become a truly great jazz drummer. It gives us another enigmatic leader in Fletcher, who drives his followers with sadistic verve. But even though Andrew definitely meets the criteria of going on a spiritual quest, Whiplash is a tricky film to view through this particular lens we’re using. Just who is Fletcher? Is he a Moses, who drags his people through pain and misery because he knows it’s the only way to reach the promised land? Or is he more like a false prophet or Pharaoh, more liable to lead his followers to destruction? Or is he a bit of both?
In Birdman, Riggan makes both a physical journey—from the West to the East Coast—and a deeply spiritual one when he tries to find success and redemption on Broadway. Riggan’s a lot like Moses. He found a home and comfort in Hollywood. And yet something led him to return to the Great White Way—to dive into the spiritual essence of acting and, somehow, find the key to his own professional and personal salvation. He, like Moses, risked everything on this journey. (And he, like at least Scott’s Moses, had a strange spirit visible to only him, giving him whispered advice.) It’s hard to know whether Riggan’s pilgrimage was successful, but I’d like to think so: He realized that salvation doesn’t lie in on-stage success, but through love and relationship.
The same could be said of Chris Kyle in American Sniper. His physical journey led him into the sand of Iraq, but his spiritual journey pointed the opposite way—and it, if anything, was a harder one to take. He, like Moses, wandered in the wilderness for years. Even as the SEAL did his military duty, he knew that eventually he had to find his way home. But as time went on, it became more and more difficult to stop his wanderings. It’s telling, I think, that right before he decides to return, Kyle’s caught in a wicked sandstorm—where it’s almost impossible to see or hear or have any sense of direction. In that moment, Kyle’s lost—physically and spiritually. And while it doesn’t take him 40 years to find his way back to his wife and family, it’s a frustratingly long journey. But eventually he finds his promised land—a place that he knew once before but had lost along the way. He found his way not just to a land of milk and honey, but home.